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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of stations.

Lost in Translation

I recently exchanged email with a JPR listener who was frustrated that one of our translators was experiencing a degraded signal. After our communication, I thought it might be useful to dedicate my column this month to explaining how translators work and why recent developments have caused difficulties for some translators JPR has operated for decades.

A translator is a relatively simple device that captures an existing radio signal at a given location and then rebroadcasts it on a new frequency using a new, dedicated antenna system aimed at a given community. Translators were originally developed and licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow full power stations to reach more people in their area by extending their signal. For example, a radio station’s main signal travels through the air and can be heard by people as long as the signal is not blocked by a topographical obstacle (a mountain or hill) or the strength of the signal “runs out” based on its power level and antenna configuration (much like the range of water sprayed from a garden hose will depend on its water pressure and nozzle pattern). In mountainous areas, like Southern Oregon and Northern California, where mountains routinely stop radio signals that could go farther if not for the obstruction, broadcasters could simply locate a translator on high ground where it could be clearly heard and then redirect it to an adjacent valley. For JPR and its listeners, translators were magic – providing a way to extend public radio to small communities in a reliable, cost-effective way. JPR was an early adopter of translator technology and still operates one of the largest networks of translators in the U.S.

There are, however, two important things to know about translators. One is that they require two clear frequencies in order to “work.” An input signal must be able to be clearly captured at a given location, then through the “translation” process, its frequency is changed (so that it doesn’t interfere with itself) and rebroadcast on a new output frequency which listeners tune in to hear. The second thing to know about translators is that they are considered “secondary” service by the FCC. While this might seem like a minor technical nuance, it is a major distinction when rules are applied that protect broadcasters from interference. In essence, the FCC has determined that translators are nice to have but must take a back seat and “tolerate” interference when a full-power station signs on in a nearby community that might cause interference on either the translator’s input or output frequency. And, to make matters worse, if a translator that has been on the air for years serving a community actually impedes the signal of a new full-power station, even in a minor way, it must cease operating (which happened to JPR in Grants Pass in the ‘90s).

For many years, JPR’s translator network has been a thing of beauty – catching a JPR signal and then rebroadcasting it to a new community of JPR listeners and supporters. In many cases, translators were daisy chained, where a main JPR signal would be captured by one translator then that translator would feed another, and so on. From the Klamath Basin to the coast, JPR linked translators to serve a large geographic region of rural towns, adding only incremental costs that were capable of being supported by small communities.

JPR’s translator network started experiencing trouble in the 1980s when the FCC determined that religious broadcasters were eligible to apply for and operate frequencies reserved for “non-commercial, educational” use (those frequencies below 92 on your FM dial). When that took place, a host of new full-power stations came online and some posed problems for JPR translators. JPR adapted and built an extensive network of satellite full-power stations that are protected from interference which also enable us to provide an alternate program stream. In many cases, we applied for frequencies adjacent to our own translators so we would in effect protect ourselves. That strategy, however, significantly raised our operating expenses since full-power facilities have much greater requirements for tower space, utility costs and monitoring capability.

In 2010, Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act in response to relaxed media ownership limitations the FCC and Congress have implemented in an effort to deregulate the telecommunication and media sectors. This legislation paved the way for creation of new LPFM stations (low-power FM) in an attempt to diversify media ownership, which has become more predictably consolidated as a result of deregulation. Because JPR is a current licensee, we are not eligible to apply for new LPFM licenses. A wave of LPFM applications for non-commercial FM radio frequencies began in 2011 and a new window of applications opens later in 2013. When these new LPFM stations are authorized there is little doubt that further technical issues will emerge related to continued operation of our translators.

We will do our absolute best to preserve and improve JPR’s service via FM translators – we know they are vital to communities that depend on them for our service. We are currently exploring alternative ways to feed translators when their input signals are experiencing interference. But, we want you to know that when problems surface it often takes an extended period of time to creatively develop solutions. Please continue to let us know when you experience difficulty receiving clear reception and understand we’ll do everything possible to get you the best JPR signal possible.

Paul Westhelle oversees management of JPR's service to the community.  He came to JPR in 1990 as Associate Director of Broadcasting for Marketing and Development after holding jobs in non-profit management and fundraising for a national health agency. He's a graduate of San Jose State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.